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Tolkien's Humpty Dumpty World. Christianity Through the Looking Glass (Part Three)

September 19, 2004

George Armstrong


Ho hum ... Here comes the old, old story again of "the Prodigal Son". Luke's gospel, Chapter 15 tells three whole stories to make sure that he rams home the point Jesus is trying to make. And still the Church hasn't got it.


There is the treasure belonging to the peasant woman. She had ten drachmae, ten tiny pretty silver coins. She has lost one of them. For her that's as serious as losing all of them. Maybe those ten coins together formed a string of jewels that were her only wealth. The string is broken and she herself is undone. She leaves not one square inch of her mud and straw floor untouched. Same with the shepherd. He's got a largish flock; one hundred sheep. He loses one - not much. He's kept the other 99 safe. But to him it's as though he's lost the lot. Then comes the family; the crazy old man and his two rather unpleasant sons, and not one sensible woman in sight. This old man has lost a son and he's only got two. He might have some daughters but in the Bible they don't count. Neither do children. Some Holy Book! But that's a sermon or two for some other time.


Twenty centuries of preachers have wept over this tale of the penitent younger son as a story about forgiveness and restoration. My parishioners gave me a shock though. None of them anywhere have ever accepted that the older son was the baddie in the parable. Time and again I told them that they had to forgive one another and not be like this ratbag older brother. But nothing would persuade my flock that this older brother was being unreasonable or unchristian. As far as they were concerned, that younger son had grabbed his share of the family silver and run. Now this little thief was bankrupt and expected to get back into the fold with some pretty speech of repentance that might have been composed by Tolkien's Wormtongue. The boy could stay lost as far as my parishioners were concerned.


Could so many parishioners be wrong? And I alone right? I'd have to check my Bible again - and again. So I had to think again, hard thought that has been and it's not over yet for me, not by a long shot. At my present stage of having to think again, these three parables are not about fairness and forgiveness and so on.


I turned to one of my Bible Commentaries compiled by the Union of Social Psychiatrists. Under this Prodigal Son parable they made some good points. One was that no sooner had the old man recovered one son, then he lost the other. Hardly sensible. And they quoted this parable as a significant example of what the Bible is full of. Their name for this conditions was: "Chronic dysfunction arising from post inter-generational conflict trauma!"


Now this simple straightforward diagnosis of a common biblical disease made good sense to me. What this parable was all about was one more failed attempt to put our whole humpty dumpty world together again - without a single tiny piece left over.


No wonder they all had a party once they thought they had succeeded. The peasant women had a party. The shepherd's had a party. The old man had a party. There were parties everywhere including parties in heaven. The angels threw it, says Luke; and angel parties are big enough to satisfy even party-crazy binge-drinking Kiwis! (Funny thing about parties. The Bible is as full of them as instances of "Chronic dysfunction arising from post inter-generational conflict trauma"!)


- - -


Putting Humpty Dumpty together again is not something that can be accomplished by Kings' horses and Kings' men. No matter how many Kings, horses, men or nuclear missiles. The trick is not how to get absolute power over a situation. Most Humpty Dumpties get busted by power and wealth in the first place. Futher injections of cash or bombs will only make matters worse. So it's a mistake to think that you can mend them by the application of yet more wealth and power. Throwing money, or cutting off money, or neo-liberal globalisation doesn't work. Nor do nuclear weapons or a war against terrorism. Absolute Power has been humanity's chiefest problem through endless Western Empires. Remember last century's "Wars to end all wars"? The soldiers in the trenches and the desert knew what a lie that was even before the wars were hardly begun.


The problems of Tolkien's Middle Earth were not solved by all those amazing battles which may have riveted, sickened or bored you in the audience during Peter Jackson's forever-and-ever-amen film trilogy. For all their magnificence, valour and special effects, Jackson's manifestations of power were knowingly insufficient to win against Sauron. Their function was only to distract Sauron's attention from something else. That something was the hobbits, at their last gasp but still dragging themselves up behind Sauron's back. Up and up they go. And at the end of that dizzy staircase, past Shelob, the monstrous spider and the living embalm-ment of her web. And then it's out over the volcanic cauldron, there to teeter on the edge before the final real victory, the destruction of the One Ring to Rule the World.


It's a pity that Peter Jackson doesn't celebrate this central theme with a clarity and power to match Tolkien. The stage on which the ultimate victory pageant was celebrated was, in Tolkien, on the Field of Cormallen. Tolkien recalls that he wept as he wrote this climax to his whole trilogy. For the climax is unambiguously focussed not on the crowning of the King amidst the massed armed forces in the environs of the formerly embattled citadel of Minas Tirith. No, the final celebration is set in the open fields. And the chief centre of honour, to their amazement if not horror, is given to the true victors, who turn out to be the laughable and fallible nine-fingered Frodo and his friend Samwise (the now-much-wiser) Gamgee.


Not that this ultimately matters. What matters is that Humpty Dumpty, the whole Middle Earth, Rohan and Gondor, are back together again. What matters is the big party to celebrate the coming of the Third Age of the World, our present Age of the World. For the great story of the world is just that. It is not simply a story of our intense private and personal experiences but of a whole community, in the last analysis a world community.


Jocelyn and I have been privileged to be at several big parties recently. First there was the farewell party for Ian Lawton and family at St Matthew's. It was hard to let them go (and I trembled for them in the United States!) But in their departure we were celebrating something that has happened to and for us all at a very deep level. The second party honoured several University of Auckland alumni who had excelled. One was John Paterson, our bishop and archishop. Another was Nicki Caro, the director of Whale Rider, who gave a magnificent speech. Then last night the party I was at took on a symbolism that was very much to the point of today's parable. Both Helen Clarke and Don Brash were there and both spoke to honour John Hinchcliff the retiring head of Auckland University of Technology. These parties included all sorts and conditions of human beings - just like this party this morning, this Eucharistic Party.


- - -


Alas, globalisation after the manner of past power-cultures can bring only perpetual warfare. This is true in the economic sphere. That way lies Statist or Imperial terror in politics and economy facing sporadic ineradicable terror from permanently embittered and often deeply religious rebels. Neither the neo-Con capitalism of Don Brash or the neo-liberal manoeverings of Helen Clarke can heal the world, necessary parties though both must be in our strange bestial lurchings towards Bethlehem. Nor have Communism and Socialism, though seemingly dead ducks, by any means run their course, as is clear from Spain and China if not from RogerGnome's shiny new New Zealand. As our Church at its highest levels has miraculously determined (more or less Christian after all these years following Whitby and Henry the Eighth) it is only from those deepest human chasms that separate the most indigenous from the most allegedly civilized of us, that the resolutions can come to bind us all into a new and wondrous Kingdom or Commonwealth of God.


- - -


Problems between older and younger sons are a dime a dozen in the Old Testament. Cain and Abel are the classic. Often it is the youngest who turns out to be the smartest and who gets the inheritance that actually belongs to the elder brother. Esau and Jacob are the classic case of this but the most dramatic is that of Joseph and his technicolour dream coat. Joseph is sold into slavery by his older brothers, who are sick of him being his father's pet and just so damned smart and up himself. But it's Joseph who finally ends up controlling the whole of Egypt with his brothers absolutely at his mercy. And maybe you could say that of the symbolism of the State of Israel today. The Arabs trace their heritage to Ishmael the elder son of Abraham. The Jewish ancestor is the younger boy Isaac, born to Sarah in her old age.


Nor are we finished here. Christianity is the younger sister and brother of the Jewish faith. Since Constantine, we as Christianity have triumphed over our Jewish older brother and visited upon him awesome anti-Semitic enormities. So (with Isaac supplanting Ishmael) the Jews supplanted the Arabs and the Christians supplanted the Jews. What a succession! And all tied up with Power and the One Power to overcome all other Powers.


If ever a political economic formation won the prize for being the One Ring to rule the world, it would be the Christian colonising Empires of Europe. We have flayed the skin and flesh from colonised countries in a manner far exceeding that of Mel Gibson's blockbuster celebration of bloody violence. Alas, Mel Gibson's Jesus Christ may not save us. He may only brings more bloody violence.


The true Jesus Christ of the Gospels, could we but recover him, this Jesus who told and - even more importantly - lived theses stories we have considered for three Sundays now, this Jesus is very different. So let us carry on and follow him with new eyes to the Cross and Resurrection of Easter.


Today's theme is then of gathering-up and gathering-in and "Big-Party". It actually continues the Grand Narrative of the earlier two in this trilogy of sermons. That Grand Narrative is expressed in different forms. It is like a hen seeking to gather all under its wondrous - as it turns out, angelic - wings. Jesus the mother hen clucks and weeps over Jerusalem just as Janet Frame's New Yorker Mattina lovingly treasures in memory and reality the fearful "rapture" which gathered all of Kowhai Street into Eternity. Then comes the Whalerider, renewing the succession of tribal genius, launching again the gloriously completed tribal canoe and breasting the Oceans of today's broken and tomorrows glorious world. And now this morning appears the mending and making whole again of the turbulent and bloody human family, the establishment of a transformational "kingdom" whereby the kingdoms of violence and exclusion and cultural abuse of power give way to the realms of the Prince of Peace where a little child, probably a little girl, shall lead us all.


Rev Dr George Armstrong

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